image description

The Project

When Christine Rucker and I first thought about documenting the life of the Yadkin River, we imagined an epic journey, beginning at the river’s source high in the Blue Ridge Mountains and ending where the river meets the Uwharrie River and its name changes to the Pee Dee. From there, it’s 225 miles to the sea. Other writers and photographers have made this journey. And countless others have loaded up canoes and headed south on unrecorded voyages. I loved the idea of adventure—Thelma and Louise meets Huck Finn. We would begin among rapids and mountain laurel, paddle lakes and black water, perhaps as far as the vast low country of South Carolina where the Yadkin-Pee Dee empties into the ocean. Who knew what we would find along the way.

But Christine and I realized we wanted to tell a more intimate story. We didn’t want to stop for an hour and paddle on. We wanted to linger. So we stayed close to home—in and around East Bend, Rockford, Siloam and a place called the Shallow Ford—on a journey that nonetheless took us to distant places and back in time through the stories people told us.

At Donnaha Park, a county park where N.C. 67 crosses the river from Forsyth into Yadkin County, I heard stories that took me to Mexican towns and dusty ranches. In the last ten years, this county park has become a popular hangout for recent Hispanic immigrants, who come here on summer weekends with their families to play soccer, picnic and swim. We met a woman there named Sandra and her three daughters—Marisol, Judith and Jessica. Sandra grew up near the town of Santo Domingo, Mexico, a good five-hour trip from Acapulco. With Marisol translating, Sandra told me about her youth. There was no water on her family’s ranch, so the family dug for water with a hollowed-out piece of fruit fashioned into a spade. Some years the crops failed and there was nothing to eat. Sandra’s mother had 19 children but only nine survived infancy. In 1993 Sandra came to North Carolina illegally and stayed. Until recently, she’d always been able to send money home to her mother, but the work has slowed down and some days she thinks of moving back to her family’s parched ranch—except at least here there is plenty of water.

Sandra’s story, more than any, speaks to why the river is so important to all of us. In other parts of the world, people scramble for clean drinking water. They haul it from dirty cisterns. They dig in dry ground. They fight bitter wars. Here more than 1.5 million of us drink from the Yadkin—without a thought or a prayer.

Christine and I learned of other ways in which the Yadkin sustains us. Congregations still go down to the river for baptisms, finding more spirit in the fast water than they would inside. The river makes for rich farmland. And it provides comfort to those who cherish the quiet found by the water’s edge on a summer’s night.

The first time we met Jack Dobson, he drove us down to the river through a friend’s pasture, towing his flat-bottom boat behind us. We saw wild turkeys and later learned about the yellow river catfish, once so plentiful in these waters until the flat-head channels and blues were introduced. Jack’s boat has a small outboard engine that he’s rigged up with an old pitchfork to protect the blades from rocks in the shallow waters. We motored upstream to the mouth of the Fisher, cut the engine and sat in silence. In Jack’s world the river belongs to all of us—or should. “Some of the old farmers that lived here when I moved here, they were some of the best people in the world,” Jack told us. “They’d let you use their land as long as you were responsible and didn’t mess it up.”

Jack also taught us how the river draws people together in community. Jack once had a place on the water, across from Rockford, in an unincorporated part of Yadkin County known as Barney Hill. When he first moved in he found two women fishing from his bank. They lived up the hill and were accustomed to setting up their lawn chairs there and staying for the afternoon. That was fine with Jack. After all, he believes that the river belongs to all of us, regardless of who happens to own the riverbank.

Someone else had suggested that we interview a woman named Lillian Satterfield. Christine and I sat in Lillian’s living room one afternoon, in the house where her parents raised a family of eight and often took in nephews and nieces so that they could go to school in Barney Hill. She told us about how her family valued education, in spite of the farm work that always needed doing. She told us about her friendship with the farm family next door, and how it didn’t matter that they were white and she was African American. She told us, too, about leaving home for college, and moving to Baltimore to teach, and coming home to help her parents, and how she earned a master’s degree from Appalachian State University and ended up as an administrator at Surry Community College. She talked a lot about her mother, Mamie Sales Carter, who lived to be 100. And then she mentioned that her mother loved to fish from the riverbank, down the hill, and we realized she was part of Jack’s world—a community with a river in its soul.

We found other communities carved out by river currents. We found communities of faith. We found farming communities, of warm but uneasy relationships among landowners and tenant farmers. And we found communities of immigrants drawn to the river because it reminds them of home.

Christine lives on a bluff overlooking the Yadkin with a view of Pilot Mountain through the trees at the very spot where the river changes its eastward course and heads south. This part of the river's story dates back millions of years, when the Blue Ridge Mountains rose from the earth, and left crevices for the river and its tributaries to follow. A creek runs through Christine's land, and from there you can take a kayak a few hundred feet to where the still water empties into the river. The Yadkin, wide and rocky here, is a wild place, nothing like the muddy water most people see when they cross the river on the interstate heading west from Winston-Salem. She lives with the river every day and has paddled more than I, but we have both heard the river speak to us this year in ways we would not have understood a year ago. We know now how a kingfisher darts along the surface. We know the chorus of frogs. We know its silence. And we know how far we can travel by staying close to home.

—Phoebe Zerwick, 2010
Site designed by M Creative
image description